Friday, January 30, 2009

Austin Energy to build largest solar power plant in the US

The following article was posted by the Austin-American Statesman newspaper on January 29, 2009.


Austin proposes nation's largest solar array
Cost of power from 30-megawatt plant raises concerns among city's manufacturers.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Austin could soon have one of the largest solar power facilities in the world.

Austin Energy, the city's electric utility, wants to set aside 300 acres it owns outside Webberville in eastern Travis County for a solar array, which would be built and owned by San Francisco-based Gemini Solar Development Co. Austin Energy would be the exclusive client and pay $10 million a year for 25 years for the power generated by the array.

The facility would open in late 2010 and produce enough energy annually to power up to 5,000 homes.

It would also raise the monthly electricity bill of an average Austin homeowner, who uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours, by an estimated 60 cents, according to Austin Energy. And it has generated concern among some of Austin's large manufacturers, who say the plant could raise their bills substantially.

The average monthly electricity bill in fiscal year 2008 among Austin single-family homes was $98.51, the utility said.

The city has already decided to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, and the plant would put Austin Energy on pace to meet its goal of getting 30 percent of its power from renewable power sources by 2020, utility officials said.

"We think this is a good project," said Michael McCluskey, Austin Energy's chief operating officer, "and we think this is a very competitive solar project."

Austin Energy already offers to pay part of the cost of adding solar panels to homes and businesses, but the Webberville array would be the city's first large-scale solar project. The facility would have more than double the generating capacity of the nation's largest solar array, which is owned by Gemini Solar and provides power to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (At least one planned facility, in Arizona, would provide power to a privately owned utility and would dwarf Austin's in terms of power produced).

Even though the Webberville plant would be huge, it would add a relatively small amount of power — 30 megawatts — to the 2,900 megawatts the city can now generate, Solar energy is more expensive than alternatives such as natural gas, nuclear and coal, which produce more pollutants and political objections.

The City Council was scheduled to hear a presentation today on the solar array. But the presentation and a possible vote were postponed at the request of Austin Energy. The council is being asked to wait because of the concerns of several large manufacturers, including Freescale Semiconductor and Spansion.

They told the city's Electric Utility Commission on Monday that they support renewable energy but are concerned about a lack of concrete information about the cost of the solar power, as well as the hit they expect to take to their bottom line. "If the cost goes up for our utilities," said Roger Wood, a corporate facilities manager for Freescale Semiconductor, "our price goes up for our product." Concerns about cost and public process also were raised last year when the city decided to buy power from a plant to be built in East Texas powered by wood waste.

That $2.3 billion deal was approved by the City Council in August over objections from environmental activists and businesses. Complaints centered around a perceived lack of public input, the cost, concerns about the plant's effect on the environment and questions about whether there was enough "biomass" near the plant to provide a steady supply of fuel.

The biomass and solar plants were planned jointly as part of a broader plan, which the city is still refining, for getting 30 percent of its power from renewable fuels by 2020. With the two plants, Austin Energy expects to hit 18 percent by 2012.

Privacy laws intended to protect the contractor's competitiveness prevent the city from releasing the cost per killowatt-hour that Gemini will charge for the power.

But long-time Austin environmental activist Paul Robbins, the author of the Austin Environmental Directory guide, estimates the cost at 16.5 cents per kilowatt-hour — much more than traditional power sources. He based that estimate on the city's total projected bill and the solar array's production capacity.

But Robbins, who is generally supportive of solar power, cautioned that energy production is a complicated matter that makes comparisons between solar and other types of energy tricky.
The solar plant would operate only about a quarter of the day and provide energy when the city's demand is highest. By contrast, most fossil-fuel facilities operate around the clock.
The cost of solar "is not so bad as it first seems," Robbins said.

Austin attorney Pike Powers says it's the kind of project Austin needs to maintain a strong economy.

Powers, one of the leading figures in Austin's push to attract the semiconductor industry in the 1980s and '90s, says solar energy can help Austin replace the semiconductor jobs it's now losing. He sees several parallels between the semiconductor industry then and the solar industry now.
For instance, he said, if Austin can attract solar plants, they would probably be followed by suppliers, which in turn would be followed by companies that make the suppliers' equipment.
Austin Energy officials say that unlike natural gas and oil, whose prices are volatile and expected to trend upward, the long-term costs of the solar plant would stay relatively stable.

McCluskey, the utility's chief operating officer, said those terms are appealing because they can give Austin a "hedge" against spikes in fossil-fuel cost. If oil and gas do skyrocket, solar may also become a relative bargain in the future, or at least look less costly by comparison, McCluskey said.

Austin would also avoid pumping 51,000 tons of carbon per year into the air by using the solar array versus an equivalent fossil-fuel powered plant, according to Austin Energy estimates. Carbon emissions contribute to global warming.

The 300 acres proposed for the plant are part of a 2,800-plus acre tract at Webberville owned by Austin Energy. The city has been debating whether to use some of the property for a landfill, but the solar plant is small enough and far enough out of the way that it shouldn't affect the landfill discussions, McCluskey said. Hector Gonzales, the mayor of Webberville and a vocal critic of the landfill proposal, likewise said the solar plant probably wouldn't affect the landfill talks. "It's only one part of the property," Gonzales said. "But it's an idea for it I support."

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